Paddling and climbing.
In the Deep South lies an expanse of wilderness like no other I know of. Bordering Florida and extending 412,000 acres into Georgia lays a blackwater swamp that is as peaceful as any place I know of. It hasnt always been that way, but for now things are quite in the Okefenokee. I knew that Joe Maher also has a soft spot in his heart for this place, so when my friend John decided to book a two night canoe trip through the swamp it was a no-brainer for me to invite him along. After all he had spent the past two weekends exploring other swamps along the East coast. This would make three swamps in as many weeks for Joe.
I met Joe early on Friday morning. After we had a cup of coffee we unloaded Joes canoe from his truck and got our gear staged to pack into the canoe. Looking at the pile of gear I wasnt sure if we could get it all into the canoe. Joe didnt have that much stuff but my pile was huge. I would be cooking for the entire group on Saturday evening and had a pile of cookware, two small coolers, and a trash bag full of groceries in addition to my clothes, sleeping bag, jungle hammock, and of course my climbing gear. We did manage to finally fit it all into the canoe.
Once loaded up we slipped the heavily laden craft into the water and settled into our seats. Not wanting to hide my inabilities I told Joe that I didnt have a lot of experience paddling a canoe. I asked If you give me a few pointers on my paddling technique it would be appreciated. Joe showed me some basic strokes. I knew that a bow paddlers task is mostly to produce horsepower but there are a few strokes that can be used up front to help a loaded canoe corner with ease. He started by explaining the draw stroke. Then the cross draw, modified draw, and modified cross draw. The pry stoke came next. Finally he explained how I should feather the blade on my forward stroke to reduce its drag in the windy conditions we were having. These skills translated pretty well from the techniques I commonly use while kayaking. We were on our way now.
A narrow canal lined with coppices of black gum trees carried us away from civilization and soon we were at its junction with Billys lake. Billys lake is one of the largest lakes in the swamp and sits adjacent to Billys island, which gets its name from the last Seminole Indian chief to reside in the Okefenokee, Billy Bowlegs. We would not pass Billys island but instead would turn and follow the Suwannee river headwaters south west towards Mixons hammock. It was a short distance to Mixons hammock but in that time we passed by buzzards roosting in a twisted bald cypress, several alligators, and to my surprise a white tailed deer. Draw, son!, these words would occasionally snap me out of my daydreaming. Then I saw something unexpected. I turned around to Joe and he gave me a nod confirming that the emergent pines ahead were not a figment of my imagination.
Normally, seeing a pine tree poking its top above the surrounding forest is nothing to be excited about. But as I said before, things were not always so peaceful in the Okefenokee. Back in 1889 the Suwannee Canal Company led by Captain Harry Jackson purchased the entire swamp for $62,101.90 and set forth with an attempt to drain the swamp. Canals were dug and to Captain Jacksons dismay instead of draining the swamp the water began to flow back into the swamp. In an attempt to recover their losses timber cutting operations began. The swamp would never be the same. The Hebard Cypress Company took over logging the swamp after the failure of the Suwannee Canal Company following Captain Jacksons death in 1895. Hebard would continue the logging until nearly every tree with a diameter at breast height of one foot or greater had been harvested. Seeing these tall pines gave hope to the possibility of an unobstructed view of 412,000 acres of heaven.
Upon reaching Mixons hammock Joe and I took a walk down the bed of an old logging tram to survey the island. The trees we had seen from a distance were here and after setting up our camp we began to pick our trees. There were at least ten good candidates to choose from. (Unlike most elections) There was one particular tree that looked the best to both of us but for photo purposes we decided to climb neighboring trees. For Joes tree we set up for SRT using a ground anchor. I got to try out the Big shot on my tree. It took me three tries to get the feel for it. Soon I had my rope set up to climb DRT. Then we decided to get our sleeping accommodations taken care of before climbing.
Once Joe had his folding cot tent set up and I had my Hennessy hammock hung we started our ascents. I made the decision earlier that I would use this trip as an exercise in minimalist climbing. My kit consisted of a non-padded rock climbing harness, 150 of hybrid static rope, and one pear screw link for my harness closer / attachment point. As I single foot locked up to my anchor limb I couldnt help being a little jealous of Joe for having brought his yo-rad setup. Three pitches later I found a nice place to lounge in the tree at about 90. Gusts of wind could be heard in the distance as they slowly moved in and passed through the trees. I could see for miles. Looking down into the swamp a great egret silently staked his pray. In the distance I could see a red-shouldered hawk circling above the prairie. Also in the distance a ridge of trees stood on what Joe thought to be Pine Island. I cant think of a more peaceful place to be. We spent at least an hour and a half taking in the beauty of the swamp before Joe saw the rest of our group approaching.
After every one had a chance to get settled I asked Joe if he would guide an intro climb and he agreed. The first one to jump at the opportunity was Martha. With Joes instructions she was climbing in no time. Next Paul gave it a try and picked up on it just as fast as Martha. Day light was getting short so we began to prepare our dinners. I have been on a few outings with this crowd before and one thing s for sure, nobody goes hungry. We had considered doing a night climb but chose to just relax and enjoy a beverage around the campfire instead. After dinner we hung all of our food in the trees to prevent the army of darkness from getting a free meal. During all of the shuffling John twisted his ankle on a cypress knee. We put it on ice and handed him some liquid medicine to ease the pain. It wasnt long before the yawns started and we all retired for the evening.
I left my rope in the tree over night so that I could get up early and climb to watch the sun rise. That never seems to pan out for me though. It cooled down quite a bit over night and I just couldnt see leaving the warm coziness of my hammock. Oh well! Maybe someday. Hearing others stirring around was my cue to get up. I knew someone would be brewing coffee and I didnt want to miss out. After a breakfast of French toast, sausage and fresh fruit Joe and I loaded the canoe and set off a little ahead of the rest of the group. We didnt even have to discuss it. We both knew that we would be slower than the kayaks and we wanted a head start. The idea was that if we could make it to Big Water shelter ahead of the group we would get to choose were we slept on the shelter.
Once on the water we were glad to find that the winds that had howled through the island all night had somewhat settled down. On this day we would be paddling up steam on Billys lake before turning the canoe north toward Minnies lake. Billys lake was crowded this morning. A tour boat full of tourist passed us. Assuming that we were fishing the tour guide asked if we were having any luck. We are breathing fresh air was my reply. That was the response I had gotten from an elderly lady on a fishing pier when I asked her the same question years ago. Ill never forget that. I paddled steadily listening to the water drip off of Joes paddle to time my strokes. The water in the swamp is stained deeply by tannins and the resulting reflections are mesmerizing. I drifted away. Draw, son!
When we reached the rest shelter at Minnies Lake there was another boat there already so we kept right on paddling. A lake on the Okefenokee is merely a slightly wider, slightly deeper section of the canoe trail. They are formed and maintained as currents scour the bottom, clearing out the mud, peat and debris that settle there. We noticed several nice trees near the Minnies lake shelter. They would be nice climbs. The possibility of attracting attention was too great so we just kept paddling along. Seeing a bay tree hanging over the water ahead I ask Joe to pull in close. I plucked a leave from the tree and crumbled it in my hand. The aroma is powerful. After the old growth cypresses were clear cut from these areas bay trees proliferated the now sunny areas. We also pass by a lot of tussock growth in an area Joe calls the flats. He calls it the flats because everything in site was clear-cut. Tussock growth is when plants find rooting on the stumps of old or logged trees. We pass the remains of an old logging tram. They have been reduced to a few pilings standing in a sea of tussock growth. Dont just stick your paddle out there, DRAW!
Lunch happened on the drift and before we knew it we were pulling up to the big water shelter. Its about a 30 by 20 platform with about half of it under a metal roof. A board walk leads to a porta-poddy. This is a typical swamp shelter. Normally the shelter is surrounded by water but due to low water there was dry land here. This allowed me to sleep in my hammock away from the shelter. Joe and I got our sleeping arrangements taken care of and soon we were wandering off in search of trees. A clearing behind the shelter led us to a well-beaten muddy trail. Lots of large footprints and depressions in the mud made it pretty clear that this path was use frequently by a large alligator. We decided to take it. It took us right up to the tallest trees in the area. They werent very tall at all though, maybe 40 or 50 feet. Now let me introduce you to some deep jungle rogue tactics, Joe said. He then pulled his shirt off and used it as a ground cloth to flake his throw line on. The Rambo-like image of Joe shirtless with a bandana on and holding a Big Shot is priceless. We got our lines set. As Joe got his Yorad rigged I anchor hitched my rope to the screw link and started DRT, single foot locking my way up.
CRACK! I turned to see Joe lying in a nice soft pile of peat. Lucky for him. An unseen branch had his rope held out from the trunk of his tree below his tie in point. Once a few feet off of the ground enough pressure built up to snap it and Joe headed south about 4 feet. I called out Are you alright? Just taking a nap. Why do you ask? was Joes reply. Back on his feet again Joe was soon making pitches. I had a one-pitch tree myself. I made it up to the main crotch and was able to stand and relieve the pressure from the webbing saddle. Above me Joe was perched in a slightly emergent tree. We could both see the best tree in the area now and made a mental note of its location. Then we heard our companions arriving at the shelter. So we descended and headed back to the shelter.
As John and Martha, Ernie and Dorrie, and Paul set up their tents I began slicing onions and peppers. Before long the swamp was filled with the aroma of sizzling chicken fajitas. Chicken fajita night seems poised to become a tradition on our paddling outings.
To simulate a camp fire Joe used his grill along with a couple of fireplace logs. It worked perfect. The stars were out bright and Paul pointed out a few constellations. He talked about seeing satellites in the nights sky and as if by magic a bright flicker-less dot drifted quickly across the sky. There were seven people on a small platform in the middle of a swamp with one common denominator, a love for nature. The night grew colder and one by one we headed for the warmth of our sleeping bags.
It takes a good bit of squirming to get settled in a hammock. But once you get a thermarest under you and get in your sleeping bag it is very comfy. The silence is interrupted by a symphony of zippers and Velcro, snoring and foot steps, and some critter is shuffling around right under my hammock. That when I pull out my secret weapon, earplugs. Silence falls over the swamp and I drift away under an open view of the nights sky.
Ear plugs do not block out the smell of coffee fortunately. Morning is here. John and Paul are up and they have a small fire going so I get up too. Once every one is up Ernie and Dorrie serve up scrambled eggs, blue berry muffins, bacon, and country ham. Like I said, nobody goes hungry on these trips. Once every one got packed up we set off. The group would head straight back towards Stephen Foster, Joe and I planned to head toward Floyds Island in search of trees. After only about a hundred yards after departing the platform, a group of sand hill cranes roared up from beside us and flew away. Its a truly amazing site. We couldnt get much further due to low water so we turned around. Seeing the sand hills made the detour well worth it though.
On the way back I noticed something different. Silence. After two days in the boat together Joe and I were starting to get a rhythm. I was able to anticipate the need for a draw stroke and respond without a command. We stopped at the Minnies lake shelter for a lunch snack. We also confirmed that there are several trees worth returning for near there. It wasnt long before we heard the loud voices and banging paddles of an approaching Boy Scout troop. That was our signal to get back on the water. We were back at the park in no time and soon were loaded up and saying our goodbyes.
I think everyone on the trip had a fantastic time. I cant wait for us to get back together again for another adventure.